Yes, Virginia, the Civil War WAS about slavery

April is Confederate History Month.  Think about that.  There is a month to celebrate a group of people who were traitors to their country and started a war because they wanted to enslave people.  How often do we have months to commemorate something that warrants only shame?

The month’s writings, speeches and events are part of a long-standing effort to whitewash secession and the Civil War.  In 2010, when Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) issued a proclamation to commemorate the month, he didn’t even mention slavery. He dug his hole even deeper when he tried to explain why he didn’t mention slavery: He said he didn’t think it was significant for Virginia.

I thought at the time that such commemorations – such attempts to cleanse secession and the Civil War of its filthy core — had little effect because most people know that the secession and war were mainly about slavery and both happened a very long time ago.  Surely, the Right isn’t fooling anyone; surely, the war isn’t relevant today.

I was wrong.  Twice.

Last year, Pew Research found that a plurality of those polled (48%) thought the war was mainly about state’s rights and a majority (56%) said the war is still relevant to today’s politics and political life.  A mere 38% of us knew that the war was mainly about slavery.

This is the one moment in my life in which I wish overt bigots got more exposure:  This blog, written and read by people who not only celebrate the secession but still defend its basic tenets — that slavery is natural because whites are superior to blacks – proudly proclaims that the war was about slavery.  The writers even quote historical sources to prove it.

Robert Toombs:

we want no negro equality, no negro citizenship; we want no mongrel race to degrade our own…

And reach the conclusion:

It is the direct ancestor of so much that exists today.

The fantasy of negro equality that underpins all of BRA will always be in an irrepressible conflict with the laws of nature or the laws of reality. It is on the same level of absurdity as a constitution based on the repudiation of gravity.

A comment writer adds sexism to the racism:

I’m telling you, this is what happens when natural slaves rule over natural masters. SWPLs love blacks because they identify with them, they are natural slaves given to their passions and insecurities, hell bent on crushing and defiling their natural betters: white men. White. Men.

Another comment writer on a later post is still fighting the Civil War, at least in his own head:

…this nation as it is currently constructed, needs to be abolished. Secession. Now. Today. Forever.

As refreshing as it is to see the truth revealed by pro-secessionists, it’s not the norm, and the attempt to rewrite history is not new.  In the 1920s, for instance, many Southern states required, by law, that textbooks call the Civil War “the War Between the States.” The implication they hoped to make was that there had been no single, unified nation that was ripped apart by their  secession.  A bill passed in Texas still used that phrase, specifically in relation to Confederate History Month:

The 150th Anniversary “Sesquicentennial” of the War Between the States ”1861-1865” is now underway through 2015 and the Confederate History Month Committee encourages everyone to make it a family affair and learn more about this important time in our nation’s past.

Most of today’s pro-Confederate proclamations carry the “state’s rights” banner and ignore the slavery issue.  It is not an honest act.

A little prewar history helps.  Between 1830 and 1860, the ideology of the slave holders became ever more shrill and ever more overtly racist. They stopped feeling the need to justify or apologize for slavery as a necessary evil, tried to claim it was good for the slaves, and their laws and customs regarding slaves became more brutal.

Merely talking about freeing the slaves became a dangerous thing in the South, and in some slaveholding states, merely receiving literature about abolition was made a felony.  Southern states passed laws to make it harder for slave owners to free their slaves.  Blacks who were already free found themselves in increasing peril as the South pressed the federal government to make it harder to restrict slavery anywhere in the nation.

Slavery was, in fact, the defining issue of our nation during those years.  In 1848, a senator from Missouri equated the slavery issue with a biblical plague:  ”You could not look upon the table but there were frogs. You could not sit down at the banquet table but there were frogs. You could not go to the bridal couch and lift the sheets but there were frogs.  We can see nothing, touch nothing, have no measures proposed, without having this pestilence thrust before us.”

In 1860, when the leaders of South Carolina got together on Christmas Eve to sign a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify … Secession…” the first grievance listed was “that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” specifically: “No person held to service or labour in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up…”  That’s the fugitive slave clause, which was underscored by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In short, their first justification for secession was that they were ticked because the free states looked for ways to wriggle out of having to capture and return to slavery blacks (and Native Americans) who had escaped. South Carolina went on to whine about them by name:

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations… The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Act of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.”

Flip-flopping on states rights

Catch the twist there?  South Carolina was opposing states’ rights when the free states claimed them.  It was only after they lost federal power in the 1860 election – white southerners had dominated all three branches of the federal government during the 1850s — that they suddenly discovered they liked states’ rights.

In another twist, after the Confederacy was formed, the leaders found that the notion of  ”states rights” interfered with the Confederate cause. In December 1862, President Jefferson Davis denounced state’s rights.

Every Confederate state except South Carolina provided at least a company of white soldiers to the Union Army, as well as thousands of black recruits. Counties in Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi either bolted to the Union, refused to secede, or declared themselves states independent of the Confederacy. It became dangerous for Confederates to travel in parts of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. In February of 1864, Davis complained that “Public meetings of treasonable character, in the name of state sovereignty, are being held.”  Apparently, he didn’t see the hypocrisy in accusing these Southerners of treason for doing exactly what the slaveholding states had done to the Union.

So, it was not states’ rights for which the Confederates fought, but slavery. Prior to the Civil War, South Carolina insisted it could determine for New York whether it could outlaw slavery and determine for Vermont whether it could allow blacks to vote.  In fact, the South Carolina leaders went so far as to try to determine what Northerners were allowed to think, listing among their causes for secession that people in the North had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”

Lincoln’s anti-slavery position really ticked them off too, and they wrote: “…the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”  They concluded by saying that “all hope of remedy is rendered vain by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.”  That “erroneous religious belief” was that slavery must end.

From beginning to end, their document was about slavery; from beginning to end, secession was about slavery.

Other states used very similar language when they joined South Carolina in secession.   Consider Louisiana’s plea for Texas to join them in the Confederate effort to protect slavery (from the address of George Williamson to the Texas Secession Convention):

The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy….That constitution the Southern States have never violated, and taking it as the basis of our new government we hope to form a slave-holding confederacy that will secure to us and our remotest posterity the great blessings its authors designed in the Federal Union. With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.

We’ve had years of counterfeit history fed to us, claiming that the Civil War was about states’ rights, tariffs, incompatibility between agrarian and industrial states — anything but slavery.  But, when we talk about what the Civil War was about, it is important to note which side of the war we’re talking about.  It is true that the North didn’t make ending slavery the point of the war until 1863 and entered the war with the aim of repairing the union of states that the South’s secession had destroyed.  But when we’re talking about the South, we need only look at what they said they were doing:  They took up arms against their nation to protect their right to enslave people.

If the declaration from South Carolina doesn’t do it for you, try this from a speech by Alexander Stephens, the newly elected vice president of the Confederacy, in March of 1861:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

In short, he’s saying that the Founders knew slavery was wrong and expected it to fade away – but that they were wrong.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Despite American ignorance on the issue, the fact is that secession and the Civil War were about slavery.  The fact that we still have official commemorations and celebrations of the institutions and the people who fought for slavery is as shameful as it is astounding.

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2 Responses to Yes, Virginia, the Civil War WAS about slavery

  1. Pingback: GOP rebranding: Clean out the crazy! | Rusticus 1776

  2. esbennett says:

    Thank you for this well-informed post.

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